Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.
In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts. This time around, the guys will be keeping in tune with the theme of the week: Bold Predictions.
This week’s topic: Bold Predictions about Ohio State’s defense.
Let’s get bold! I am eagerly anticipating all of the bold predictions from LGHL this week, because we are fully entrenched in hot take season. No NFL, no NBA, no NHL, no (real) golf... you get it. This is low tide when it comes to sports, so the ability and hubris to make predictions – like we have a clue – is the best thing we have going! I know my podcast co-host, Gene, is going to push back because he is a big baseball guy, but I can only watch so many Cincinnati Reds losses before I write them off and move on with my life.
Today, we are making bold predictions pertaining to the defense, and I have a few. First and foremost, I predict that Ohio State will sign a linebacker in their 2023 recruiting class. I am going out on a limb here, as the Buckeyes recently received news that two primary targets have verbally committed elsewhere, leaving Arvell Reese and Derion Gullette still in the mix. I am not taking shots at either of those players, because I think both are exciting prospects, but whiffing on Troy Bowles and specifically Tackett Curtis leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
While I am still excited for the addition of Jim Knowles, I think it is fair to say that he has stumbled out of the blocks a bit as a recruiter. But I believe he and the staff will regroup and gain Reese’s commitment (sooner than later), and if they are also able to add Gullette, it would be a nice bounceback from this past week’s disappointment.
As for the product on the field, I expect some big things from this defensive unit, as well as individual players. For my real bold prediction, I am going to throw it out there that J.T. Tuimoloau will finish the 2022 season with double-digit sacks, and potentially even challenge the OSU single-season record. Only eight Buckeyes have totaled 10+ sacks in a single season, and the current record is 16.5, held by Chase Young. I am all in on Tuimoloau, and believe he could be a generational talent similar to Young or the “Brosas”.
Tuimoloau is projected to start at defensive end, and even if there is some sort of rotation at that position, I think he gets the majority of the snaps. Zach Harrison and Jack Sawyer are likely (in my opinion) to share reps on the other side/at the Jack position, leaving minimal competition for Tuimoloau. We saw how he could affect the game in spurts last year, so imagine what he can do as the primary starter in 12-14 games. And then imagine how much better he could potentially be with a full season and subsequent offseason under his belt. Tuimoloau’s recruitment came down to the wire, so he was essentially thrown into his first game with a “good luck” and a slap on the rear. Go get ‘em kid. We now get to witness what 12+ months of his development looks like.
Ohio State’s new defensive scheme and plan of attack should also benefit Tuimoloau, and boost his chances of wreaking havoc in the backfield. Because after giving Knowles a hard time earlier, I have to recognize his coaching ability. His Oklahoma State Cowboys led the country in sacks last year, so he knows how put guys in the offensive backfield. Two defensive ends led that attack for Oklahoma State, both totaling 10+ sacks. No offense to either, but Tuimoloau possesses more talent. If the Buckeyes’ unit comes together and picks up the scheme as well as Knowles’ former team, they are simply working with more. As such, I don’t see any reason why the sophomore would be unable to achieve similar or better results than the Cowboys’ bookends.
I am far from being the only one who expects big things from Tuimoloau, so that should tell you something. The former five-star recruit is supremely talented, and often looked like a man amongst boys as a true freshman. The talent around him will not necessarily be better, but it could be, and at the very least, players should be put in a better position to succeed under new coaches. If everything comes together, I believe it will open up opportunities for the Buckeyes to get after the quarterback more than they have in recent years. Tuimoloau is my pick to lead the pass rush, and I boldly predict that he will finish the 2022 season with 14.5 sacks, putting him second all-time behind Young.
From what we’ve seen on the defensive side of the ball for Ohio State these past few seasons, it is a bold take in itself to assume that the Buckeyes will actually field a defense in 2022. Like Josh, I do believe in Knowles and what he can bring to the team as the headman of that side of the football, but I am still very much in a ‘see it to believe it’ state. I have very little concern about the level of talent of the players Ohio State has at its disposal on defense, but I am worried that the previous defensive assistants responsible for the last two years in particular have broken some guys beyond repair.
It comes to no surprise then that my bold prediction is that Ohio State’s defense will have three freshman starters on it by the end of the season, and potentially more that maybe don’t officially start but see significant snaps. Knowles claimed that everyone is starting with a clean slate and beginning his tenure on even footing, and if that is truly the case and, as I believe, some of the Buckeyes’ older players have truly been ruined by the previous regime, then I would not at all be surprised to see a bit of a youth movement necessary in order to right the ship.
Two of the guys I think are the most obvious to earn these starting roles are the pair of five-star freshmen on this year’s roster: C.J. Hicks and Sonny Styles.
It will come as no surprise to anyone with eyeballs that has watched Ohio State the last few seasons to say that linebacker play has been severely lacking. Guys like Steele Chambers and Tommy Eichenberg stepped up admirably during the 2021 campaign, but a guy like Hicks has the potential to be a true game changer at the position — something not quite seen in Columbus since the days of Raekwon McMillan and Jerome Baker. Lofty expectations for a freshman, but the position is truly wide open for him to take it, and as a guy who got first round NFL Draft projections and comparisons to star 49ers linebacker Fred Warner coming out of high school, I dont think its a long shot to see him take over.
Styles has a little bit of a bigger uphill climb in a deeper safety room, but Knowles’ three-safety base defense will play into his favor. Another guy earning first-round NFL Draft predictions as a high schooler, I really think Styles could become the Ohio State version of what Clemson did with Isaiah Simmons. Listed at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds on the official Buckeyes’ roster, I would not be stunned to see him add a few pounds and become a star playing inside the box. For now, he should be a definite fixture in the safety rotation, especially with Josh Proctor coming off a significant injury and, in my opinion, the potential to overtake either Tanner McAlister or Ronnie Hickman at the other two spots.
With those two guys almost assuredly seeing significant playing time on this year’s defense, the third guy I wouldn’t be at all stunned forces his way into the starting lineup is yet another safety in Kye Stokes. One of the stars in Ohio State’s spring game, Stokes doesn’t come to Columbus as highly touted as Hicks and Styles, but he has really made a name for himself throughout the offseason as a practice standout. If you couldn’t already tell, I’m not all that super high on either McAlister or Hickman, and so it would not surprise me in the slightest if the Buckeyes’ safety trio at season’s end is Proctor, Styles and Stokes.
There are a number of other members of Ohio State’s 2022 recruiting class who could carve out a role for themselves on this year’s defense, especially up front. All four of the Buckeyes’ defense line signees in Caden Curry, Kenyatta Jackson, Omari Abor and Hero Kanu could work their way into the rotation on a pass rush that was in much need of an injection of talent and youth a year ago. Gabe Powers, another highly touted linebacker, could easily work his way up in that room as well. All in all, with how poorly the Ohio State defense as a whole has been for a few years now, getting some fresh blood in there certainly couldn’t hurt — especially when all of those guys are four and five-star prospects.